When same-sex marriage was a Christian rite
(Modified 20 May 2012. Original draft can be found here.)
Or so claims an article that is becoming viral on the internet (i.e., becoming popular through the process of sharing) that was written almost five years ago by someone who attempted to argue that the early Christian church used to recognize and officiate same-sex marriages, the evidence for which included certain liturgical rites, historical examples of same-sex couples who were married thereby, and at least one iconic depiction of a gay wedding. Perhaps this recent spike in popularity of that old article is in response to the latest political advocacy regarding the issue, such as the North Carolina state constitutional amendment recently voted on to define marriage as strictly between a man and a woman and the discussions that it has provoked,  including President Barack Obama’s subsequent public approval of same-sex marriage expressed in an exclusive ABC interview. 
I became aware of this article when someone at an atheist message board that I am active on (let us call him Charles) posted a link to it and happily crowed that Christian opposition to same-sex marriage “may not be quite as long-held as they think.” Out of curiosity and with typical skepticism, I clicked on the link to see what this was all about. It took me to a Livejournal blog which had reproduced a dubious article by an unknown author who presents an everything-you-were-told-is-a-lie style of argument that did not reference any material other than the largely discredited work of one John Boswell.  So I critically researched the claims made by that article and eventually posted the results which defeated its claims (and brought the whole discussion at that atheist message board to a rather interesting halt).
And I surely find it strange, particularly among atheists who claim to esteem rational skepticism, that the article is being broadly shared without any critical interaction with its claims—especially with the multitude of red flags that are raised in that article. Just why did Charles, as do so many others including those who gave his post a thumbs-up, find it compelling enough to uncritically share? I would rather believe that he did not even read it because, if he did, there is an appalling level of simple credulity being displayed that really should be embarrassing. But here at least I want to attempt getting truth and history right and put this nonsense in its place, publishing the results of what I discovered.
The article that Charles cited was not even original. What I found at the Livejournal blog was a full reproduction (with some initial commentary) of an article published on 24 August 2008 by an individual who wrote under the pseudonym ThosPayne on the web site for Colfax Record, the online presence of a local newspaper in Colfax, California,  apparently under his myColfax personal blog.  That article no longer exists at its original location, although there exists an archived copy of it.  For whatever reason, Charles could not be bothered to do even this most basic of searches in order to reference original source material—something that is of particular interest to skeptics and critical thinkers. But what about the article itself and its claims? It is frankly an intellectual train wreck that any self-respecting skeptic would give a wide berth. Let us critically interact with its claims here.
[Professor] John Boswell … discovered that in addition to heterosexual marriage ceremonies in ancient Christian church liturgical documents …
This disingenuous label of “heterosexual marriage” is misleading and question-begging, for it carries the implication that Christian liturgical rites recognized and blessed any other form of holy matrimony, thus preparing the reader to accept that homosexual marriage was one of them, as the cited article would subsequently attempt to argue. But one must not assume the very thing to be proved, which is what the label “heterosexual marriage” does by implying that marriage was not strictly between a man and a woman. While there certainly were same-sex unions (adelphoi genesthai), these ceremonies were neither homosexual nor were they marriages, as we will soon see.
… there were also ceremonies called the “Office of Same-Sex Union” … and the “Order for Uniting Two Men” …
According to Shaw, who is sympathetic to same-sex marriage but does not tolerate scholarly incompetence, these titles are mistranslated. “Boswell’s translation of their titles (akolouthia eis adelphopoiesin and parallels) as ‘The Order of Celebrating the Union of Two Men’ or ‘Office for Same-Sex Union’ is inaccurate. In the original, the titles say no such thing. And this sort of tendentious translation of the documents is found, alas, throughout the book” (which the article that Charles had linked to is predicated upon). When these words are translated in a straightforward manner, writes Shaw, “they impart a quite different sense to the reader.” 
These church rites had all the symbols of a heterosexual marriage: the whole community gathered in a church, a blessing of the couple before the altar was conducted with their right hands joined, holy vows were exchanged, a priest officiatied [sic] in the taking of the Eucharist and a wedding feast for the guests was celebrated afterwards. These elements all appear in contemporary illustrations of the holy union of the Byzantine Warrior-Emperor, Basil the First (867-886 CE) and his companion John.
There is not one single piece of evidence cited to support any one of these claims, leaving the reader with no reason to accept any of them. Worse yet, given the detailed criticisms by scholars such as Shaw, Young, Woods, and Neuhaus, there exists manifold reasons to be highly skeptical of the claims.
Consider for example the “holy union” of Basil and John. Although Basil was arguably a homosexual, the ceremonial in which the two were united was not one of holy matrimony. Boswell translated the text of historian Theophanes into English as saying that Basil “honored him with the title protospatarius and granted him intimacy with him on account of their earlier shared life in ceremonial union.” There are two misleading translations occurring here, as Young points out. 
First is his translation of parrhesia as “intimacy,” which is misleading because the context of his argument gives a sense to the reader which the word simply does not convey. The intimacy being referred to in the text is not the romantic sort shared by lovers; rather it refers here to the freedom granted John to speak his mind plainly and boldly to Basil, which is what parrhesia means. 
Second, the earlier ceremonial union spoken of was not a marital one; the Greek clause reads “kai tes pros auton parresias metedoke dia ten phthasasan koinonian tes pneumatikes adelphotetos,” which is properly translated as “previous association in spiritual brotherhood”  (pneumatikes adelphotetos)—although, contrary to Young, the meaning of koinonia conveys something deeper than mere “association,” as attested in Scripture by its use in the sacrament of the Lord’s supper and the powerful communion shared by those in Christ.  (And therefore, contrary also to Boswell, it does not denote a union of lovers joined in holy matrimony either.)
[The curious icon] shows two robed Christian saints. Between them is a traditional Roman ‘pronubus’ (a best man), overseeing a wedding. The pronubus is Christ. The married couple are both men.
Since the preponderance of evidence weighs heavily in favor of the Christian church recognizing marriage only between a man and a woman, to say that this icon depicted a “wedding” scenario of a “married couple [who] are both men” is to illegitimately beg the very question. The author must not assume the very thing to be proved. Given the extensive historical evidence for Christian rites which bless adelphopoiesis or the making of a brother, it is more reasonable to work from the assumption that this is the sort of union being depicted in that icon and to shoulder the burden of proving that it depicts something else. The author’s conclusion is not impossible, but it is certainly improbable—and cannot legitimately be assumed from the outset.
The full answer [as to whether or not the icon depicts Christ sanctifying a gay wedding] comes from other early Christian sources about the two men featured in the icon, St. Sergius and St. Bacchus, two Roman soldiers who were Christian martyrs. … In the definitive 10th century account of their lives …
Although the author here references a tenth-century account, he does not cite it; evidently the reader is supposed to just take his word for it, including his claim that this text states that Sergius was the “sweet companion and lover” of Bacchus, a statement which seems rather crucial to his conclusion about what the icon depicts. But then the author also does not explain how this unnamed account from over half a millennium after Sergius and Bacchus had died can be meaningfully considered “definitive,” never mind reliable.
Sergius and Bacchus’s close relationship has led many modern scholars to believe they were lovers.
This is a significant claim of great import to his conclusion, so where are the references to these “many modern scholars”? Who are they and where is their research that shows Sergius and Bacchus were lovers? A red flag to any skeptic, the author does not cite any support whatsoever for this claim, using what Wikipedia editors would flag as “weasel words.”
But the most compelling evidence for this view is that the oldest text of their martyrology, written in New Testament Greek, describes them as erastai, or “lovers.” In other words, they were a male homosexual couple.
This is likewise a significant claim of great import to his conclusion, so why is it that the author neither cites nor includes a Greek quote from this “oldest text of their martyrology”? It would be valuable to those interested in assessing the accuracy of the claim, its translation and interpretation. I submit that his reason is perhaps the same as or similar to the reason why Boswell neither cited nor quoted from the specific original text and its context: because the claim is utter fiction. As it turns out, the word erastai is simply not there.  Starting at section 19 on page 373 of Analecta Bollandiana, Vol. 14, the skeptic can access the original Greek text of “Passio Antiquior Ss. Sergii et Bacchi” for himself and see that this claim is entirely fictitious. The author and Boswell are not content with their revisionist history; they have to further their dishonesty by inventing support.
One Greek 13th century rite, ‘Order for Solemn Same-Sex Union,’ invoked St. Serge and St. Bacchus and called on God to “vouchsafe unto these, Thy servants [N and N], the grace to love one another and to abide without hate and not be the cause of scandal all the days of their lives, with the help of the Holy Mother of God, and all Thy saints.” The ceremony concludes: “And they shall kiss the Holy Gospel and each other, and it shall be concluded.” … Another 14th century Serbian Slavonic ‘Office of the Same Sex Union,’ uniting two men or two women, had the couple lay their right hands on the Gospel while having a crucifix placed in their left hands. After kissing the Gospel, the couple were then required to kiss each other, after which the priest, having raised up the Eucharist, would give them both communion.
And here we have a direct quote; but, like before, there is not a single citation for it. The reader is simply to take the author’s word for it. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, a red flag always goes up (and should) when every hit of a Google search points to nothing else but the same article and its various reproductions. That should lead the reader to be highly skeptical of the supposed quote, to say the least.
The actual text for these Christian rites which bless adelphopoiesis—the making of a brother—comes from an eleventh-century Greek manuscript (Grottaferrata B. ii.) for Akolouthia eis adelphopoiesin (translated by Boswell as ‘Office for Same-Sex Union’), which Shaw cites and quotes using Boswell’s translation of it, while inserting “some of the significant original Greek words in transcription” :
The priest shall place the holy Gospel on the Gospel stand and they that are to be joined together place their right hands on it, holding lighted candles in their left hands. Then shall the priest cense them and say the following:
In peace we beseech Thee, O Lord.
For heavenly peace, we beseech Thee, O Lord.
For the peace of the entire world, we beseech Thee, O Lord.
For this holy place, we beseech Thee, O Lord.
That these thy servants, N. and N., be sanctified with thy spiritual benediction, we beseech Thee, O Lord.
That their love [agape] abide without offense or scandal all the days of their lives, we beseech Thee, O Lord.
That they be granted all things needed for salvation and godly enjoyment of life everlasting, we beseech Thee, O Lord.
That the Lord God grant unto them unashamed faithfulness [pistis] and sincere love [agape anhypokritos], we beseech Thee, O Lord…
Have mercy on us, O God.
“Lord, have mercy” shall be said three times.
The priest shall say:
Forasmuch as Thou, O Lord and Ruler, art merciful and loving, who didst establish humankind after thine image and likeness, who didst deem it meet that thy holy apostles Philip and Bartholomew be united, bound one unto the other not by nature but by faith and the spirit. As Thou didst find thy holy martyrs Serge and Bacchus worthy to be united together [adelphoi genesthai], bless also these thy servants, N. and N., joined together not by the bond of nature but by faith and in the mode of the spirit [ou desmoumenous desmi physeis alla pisteis kai pneumatikos tropi], granting unto them peace [eirene] and love [agape] and oneness of mind. Cleanse from their hearts every stain and impurity and vouchsafe unto them to love one other [to agapan allelous] without hatred and without scandal all the days of their lives, with the aid of the Mother of God and all thy saints, forasmuch as all glory is thine.
Another Prayer for Same-Sex Union:
O Lord Our God, who didst grant unto us all those things necessary for salvation and didst bid us to love one another and to forgive each other our failings, bless and consecrate, kind Lord and lover of good, these thy servants who love each other with a love of the spirit [tous pneumatike agape heautous agapesantas] and have come into this thy holy church to be blessed and consecrated. Grant unto them unashamed fidelity [pistis] and sincere love [agape anhypokritos], and as Thou didst vouchsafe unto thy holy disciples and apostles thy peace and love, bestow them also on these, O Christ our God, affording to them all those things needed for salvation and life eternal. For Thou art the light and the truth and thine is the glory.
Then shall they kiss the holy Gospel and the priest and one another, and conclude.
“It is this ceremonial,” Shaw observes, “and blessings like these, that Boswell claims to be part of a lost, or deliberately suppressed, tradition of church-legitimized same-sex marriages between men,” which he then proceeds to thoroughly defeat. The point that I wish to raise here—aside from citing and properly quoting the rites which the original article made a complete mess of—is the fact that nowhere in any of this material is there so much as a hint of homosexual marriage, and that it is moreover entirely consistent with the well-established and recognized historical church rite of making a brother (adelphopoiesis).
“But it says they were to kiss!” Indeed it does. But is that a romantic kiss between newlyweds? Of course not; observe that they were to “kiss the holy Gospel and the priest” as well. Furthermore, such kissing in that culture and period was entirely customary (e.g., Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14) and did not connote what it largely does in the modern West. “The ancient and medieval world about which Boswell writes was not riven by the same anxieties and repressions that mark our own,” Shaw writes. “In that world, public and affective bonds between men were typical, even banal. But this is not the same thing as the legitimization, or the sacralization, of homosexuality.” 
Records of Christian same-sex unions have been discovered in such diverse archives as those in the Vatican, in St. Petersburg, in Paris, in Istanbul and in the Sinai, covering a thousand years from the 8th to the 18th century. …
Again, there certainly were same-sex unions (adelphoi genesthai) but these rites were neither homosexual nor were they marriages. If the author wishes to argue otherwise, he needs to do far more than simply point to the well-attested historical evidence for adelphoi genesthai church rituals. “The ‘new’ documents that Boswell has unearthed,” notes Shaw, “are nothing more than a few additional texts that shed more light on a primitive and basic power linkage between men in the ancient Mediterranean, and the rituals attendant on its formation.” 
[Professor] Boswell’s academic study is so well researched and documented that it poses fundamental questions for both modern church leaders and heterosexual Christians about their own modern attitudes towards homosexuality. For the church to ignore the evidence in its own archives would be cowardly and deceptive. The evidence convincingly shows that what the modern church claims has always been its unchanging attitude towards homosexuality is, in fact, nothing of the sort.
For whom Boswell’s embarrassing work “poses a fundamental question” is Boswell himself, whose so-called research is fraught with selective citations, revisionist history, inaccuracies, mistranslations, misleading equivocations, and other various disreputable errors that are an affront to proper scholarship. There is a reason why “Boswell’s methodology and conclusions have been disputed by many historians.”  There is no good reason for this embarrassing substitute for good scholarship to be taken seriously or further propagated by skeptics and critical thinkers. It is nonsense and nothing more.
 Karimi 2012.
 Klein 2012.
 Gwinna 2009.
 233 S. Auburn Road, Suite 205, Colfax, CA 95713.
 At the original article the author name is hyperlinked to a my.colfaxrecord.com user profile.
 Shaw 1994.
 Young 1994.
 Ibid. (cf. Foucault 1983).
 “Koinonia.” (2012, January 16). Wikipedia. Accessed 13 May 2012.
 Massey 2012.
 Shaw 1994. Shaw’s inserted Greek words are placed within square brackets.
 “Saints Sergius and Bacchus.” (2012, May 13). Wikipedia. Accessed 13 May 2012.
“Passio Antiquior Ss. Sergii et Bacchi,” ed. J. van den Gheyn, Analecta Bollandiana 14 (1895), 373-395. An English translation of this text by John Boswell can be found on this web page by Scott Safier (School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University).
Michel Foucault, “Discourse and truth: The meaning of the word ‘parrhesia’.” From a lecture given at the University of California at Berkeley (October–November 1983).
Gwinna, “When same-sex marriage was a Christian rite,” Livejournal: Anthropologist Community [blog] (2009, December 11).
Faith Karimi, “North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage sparks cheers, jeers,” CNN (2012, May 9).
Rick Klein, “President Obama affirms his support for same sex marriage,” ABC News Blogs (2012, May 9).
Keith Massey, “Bonds of Brothers,” Magnalia Dei [blog] (2012, May 12).
Richard Neuhaus, “In the case of John Boswell,” First Things 41 (1994, March), 56-59.
Brent Shaw, “A groom of one’s own?” The New Republic (1994, July), 43–48.
David Woods, “The origin of the cult of Ss. Sergius and Bacchus,” University College Cork, Ireland (2000, April). This is a revised version of his paper, “The Emperor Julian and the Passion of Sergius and Bacchus,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 5 (1997), 335-367.
Robin Young, “Gay marriage: Reimagining church history,” First Things 47 (1994, November), 43-48.